Although the compass needle determinedly points north (or south in some interpretations) – there is a relic in many languages that still reveals a more primordial strategy of finding our way and determining our place in the universe: the word orientation.
“To orient” literally means “to find east” – and was first used in the design of buildings, which in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, often faced east, the direction of the rising sun (interestingly enough, there is a completely different rule in operation in traditional Chinese architecture, where buildings were supposed to open to the south).
From these beginnings on finding one’s way and determining one’s place in the world has been closely correlated to the aspiration of finding one’s Orient. To find the Orient means to be able “to orient” oneself. But there is an inevitable twist in these very human aspirations. In order for “us” to be able to orient ourselves, the Orient should remain fixed and unmoving, unchanged in time as much as in space. It should also remain completely different from “us”, and by all these it serves as an “orientation” point in temporal, spatial and, most importantly, in cultural terms.
This fixation of Orient as the Non-Occident, the temporally and spatially unmoving and unchanging Other, serves as a per negationem definition of the likewise constructed Occident. When sets of these presumptions are linked to a system of unequal power relations, the result usually is the creation of a certain ideological discourse that Edward Said calls Orientalism.
Said’s Orientalism, however, is a phenomenon limited in both time and space. His analysis focuses mostly on the colonialism of the 19th century onwards as it was representing the Western Asia and North Africa, i.e. the “Middle-East” countries.
The scope of the orientalizing ideology is, contrary to the strict interpretation of Said’s theory, much wider. Orientation – or better orientalization – is the process through which identities are constructed, a process that defines the entity by defining its Other. In general terms, this process of ascribing to Other the qualities and characteristics that reflect those of one’s own, and firmly instisting on the safety of the Other’s unchangeability, could be called “Otherization”. Orient is therefore just one particular case of the Other, and Orientalism just one of the historical versions of “Otherism“.
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